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Australian football leagues play on amid outbreak


Australia pressed on with matches in its three main football leagues on Saturday, playing in empty stadiums in an effort to halt the spread of the coronavirus.

The National Rugby League, soccer’s A-League and Australian Rules Football’s AFL played on in the midst of the coronavirus crisis that has seen more than 1,000 Australians infected.

Around the world sports have suspended leagues or canceled tournaments until restrictions can be lifted on public gatherings and social contact.

The AFL, which signed a A$2.5 billion broadcasting deal from 2017 to 2022, opened its 22-round season this weekend with the first of nine matches. In normal times the league attracts enormous audiences, especially in Victoria State where crowds of more than 80,000 are common.

Australian Rules has always been something of an oddity, a sport confined mainly to Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia with small footholds in New South Wales and Queensland. The decision to play on while other sports have halted may be an opportunity for the sport to expand its audience beyond those regions, even globally.

Defending champion Richmond opened the season Thursday with a 16.9 (105) to 12.9 (81) win over Carlton.

Rugby league played the second round of its NRL season, also in closed stadiums. The financial imperatives to continue are greater on rugby league than Australian Rules or soccer because its finances have been precarious in recent years and some clubs might not survive a lengthy disruption.

The Auckland-based New Zealand Warriors have based themselves in Australia since last weekend’s opening round to allow the league to continue with a full complement of 16 teams. If they were to return to New Zealand, travel restrictions would make it impossible for the Warriors to play further matches against Australian opponents.

The Warriors, short on players and equipment, produced a brave performance before losing 20-6 on Saturday to the Canberra Raiders.

The A-League continued in the 24th round of a 29-round season. When second-placed Melbourne City beat Central Coast 4-2 in the first match of the round Friday, three Melbourne supporters watched from a bridge next to the Gosford stadium and another peered through the stadium gate.

The season’s schedule has been substantially disrupted. The Melbourne Victory and Wellington Phoenix are both in self-isolation for 14 days after recently traveling from New Zealand to Australia.

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